The Italian Lesson and Other Divertissements, the current Rep Stage production, is a mixed bag: a suite of piano music, a comic-dramatic monologue and a one-act opera.
The monologue is the heart of the program. The Italian Lesson is one of many pieces written and performed by Ruth Draper (1884-1956), a remarkable talent who appeared in one-woman shows for 50 years. The opera is Draper's monologue set to music by Lee Hoiby. Performing either work is an enormous feat of memory and stamina. Valerie Lash (an actor known to local audiences until recently as Valerie Costantini) and soprano Deborah Kent prove fully equal to it.
Pianists Kristina Suter and Lisa Rehwoldt open the program with a spirited performance of the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. It's nervous, jazzy music; and in John Musto's arrangement for two pianos, the sound becomes harsh and percussive. A couple of quiet interludes recall tunes from the show - "Maria" and "Somewhere."
In The Italian Lesson, Lash shows us a half-hour in the life of a society woman whose day is a whirlwind of superficial activities. As we meet her, she is taking a language lesson from an Italian woman (who, like all the other characters, is never seen).
The society woman professes delight that the day's lesson is drawn from Dante's Commedia Divina, but she never gets past one brief passage. First, the cook comes in for instructions about dinner. Then there's a phone call about a hospital committee she heads.
Her children charge in and out, and by turns she scolds, patronizes and tries to get rid of them. Further interruptions come, on the phone and in person, from her husband, the children's governess, her son's teacher, a manicurist, a new puppy, a portrait painter, her social secretary and a friend just back from a vacation in Mexico.
By this time, the Italian teacher is long gone, and we've had a thorough demonstration of the woman's strident speech, pretentious manner, gossipy gabble and empty-headed self-satisfaction. Finally, a certain gentleman phones, and the two of them arrange a tryst. But even he has to be fitted into a corner of her breathless schedule.
The monologue is a funny and revealing portrait of a vain, vacuous woman. Lash spells out every nuance of her behavior in voice and expression. Her body language shows admirable economy, every gesture adding point to the portrait.
The operatic version of The Italian Lesson suffers by comparison with the original. Traditionally, opera composers add music to a story to heighten its drama and emotion, but there is neither drama nor emotion in Draper's script. Hoiby's music, in fact, doesn't seem to add anything to the original conception.
As in most contemporary operas, there are no arias. The composer sets Draper's words to notes that imitate speech. Now and then snippets of melody break out, underlining important sentences, but they are soon aborted.
When sung to Hoiby's music, the words come out more slowly than an actor would speak them. As a result the action drags and the clever points in the script go flat. Draper's text is abridged. But, even so, the opera lasts a good 15 minutes longer than the monologue.
By imitating everyday speech in his voice part, Hoiby is telling the singer how to deliver her lines. Kent sings the role beautifully, but the composer pre-empts any chance she has of creating a character for herself.
The opera is accompanied by 10-piece orchestra conducted from the piano by Patricia McKewen Amato.
Both monologue and opera are played on a simple set designed by Robert Marietta - a chair and a faux marble pedestal holding a white French phone, all on a black platform. There's not much a performer can do in a small playing area and a sparse set - sit, stand up, walk around the chair - but Jackson Phippin's staging (basically the same in both versions) manages to be varied and expressive.
Rep Stage presents "The Italian Lesson and Other Divertissements" at 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 16 in Theatre Outback, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Reservations: 410-772-4900.